Peasants, Science, and Climate Change

Eric Holt-Giménez | 04.12.2017

On April 17th peasant organizations around the world will celebrate the Day of Peasant Struggle. Five days later, on the 22nd of April—Earth Day—scientists from around the world will March for Science.


Aren’t peasants simply a backwards class destined to disappear in the face of technological progress? And shouldn’t scientists—the harbingers of technological progress—be in their labs rather than the streets? On the surface, both events seem as incongruous as they are unrelated. But the International Day of Peasant Struggle and the March for Science have more in common than meets the eye.

Called by the Via Campesina, The Day of Peasant Struggle was first held in 1996 to protest the massacre of 20 peasant farmers by Brazilian security forces in Pará, Brazil. Since then, the day has served not only as a platform for resistance to human rights abuses, land grabs, gene piracy and other violations of peasants’ rights, but to call for agrarian reform and sustainable family agriculture. Far from being a marginal sector, peasant and family farms supply over 70% of the world’s food on just 25% of the arable land. They invest more in agriculture than do private banks or governments, worldwide.

While the demands of the world’s 2.5 billion peasants go back hundreds of years, scientists have not risen in protest since the Enlightenment. But the recent gutting of the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency, and the propagation of the belief by the Trump administration that climate change is an invention of the Chinese, has pushed the scientific community to uncharacteristic public action.

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Climate change—and the rise of its deniers in our political system—is the overlapping issue between the Day of Peasant Struggle and the March for Science.

On the part of the 200 million members of Via Campesina, it’s time to reverse the trends of industrial agriculture that uses up 80% of the worlds fresh water, emits 40% of the planet’s greenhouse gases, and has destroyed over 90% of the planet’s agro-biodiversity. Unlike industrial agriculture, family farmers, claims Vía Campesina, can actually help “cool the planet” and produce our food with carbon-capturing, agroecological practices.

The 140 scientific organizations behind the March for Science insist on evidence-based climate policy in the service of the public good.

But below the surface of these actions are the structural causes of climate change and peasant dispossession—causes that farmers may well understand better than many scientists.

This is because while scientists hold a privileged position in society and have ridden a century-long wave of professional growth, peasants and family farmers have little social status, been systematically impoverished by free markets and dispossessed by technological modernization for even longer.

Things changed for scientists with the advent of neoliberal globalization in the 1970s and the enactment of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Bayh-Dole gave private corporations the right to own discoveries produced at federally-funded universities. Public science was displaced by private science, driving researchers to compete in the “marketplace of (patentable) ideas” where nanotechnology, molecular and synthetic biology, robotization and big data rule. The privatization of our research universities drove a deep wedge in the scientific community, separating researchers working with public money on public goods, from those working on intellectual property for monopoly corporations—like the ones controlling our food and agriculture systems.

The privatization of science was part and parcel of corporate globalization—the same globalization that drove the overproduction (and cheapening) of grain in the United States. This surplus was summarily dumped in the countries of the global south, thanks to the regional free trade agreements (FTAs) and the international agreements of the World Trade Organization (WTO). This grain was sold at prices below the costs of production, driving farmers out of business and setting off a massive rural exodus from south to north. The free trade rules of the WTO and the FTAs also opened the borders to fracking and extractive industries that are busy pillaging the countryside, dispossessing farmers, sucking up water and polluting environments.

The Trump administration’s “attack on science” is crudely populist—and selective. It may well cripple the EPA, public science and climate science, but it won’t affect the corporate science of the petroleum, extractives or industrial agricultural industries.

Support for science in the public good is a noble, but vague, demand. Which science? Which public? And which good? (The farmers supporting the Day of Peasant struggle certainly aren’t going to support the science of the merging monopoly behemoths BayerMonsanto and Syngenta-ChemChina who produce genetically modified seeds that require the toxic herbicides sold by these same companies.)

Today’s peasant movements and the scientists protesting the recent moves by the Trump administration could be good allies. This sort of alliance, however, would require a “Dialogue of Knowledge” as called for by La Vía Campesina. This dialogue respects the knowledge and needs of both peasants—the inventors of agroecology and the producers of most of the world’s food—and the scientists working for the public good. A peasant-scientist alliance has actually been called for by the Zapatistas indigenous communities in the liberated areas of Chiapas who invite us to re-imagine science as a tool for resistance, rather than oppression. The peasant-scientist alliance is visible in agroecology, based on the ancient practices of indigenous farmers around the world. Agroecology is largely understood as a science, a practice and a movement. The Latin American Scientific Society for Agroecology (SOCLA in Spanish) brings scientists and farmers together not just in shared research projects, but in a commitment to social change, much like the Science for the People movement in the United States that grew out of protests to the Vietnam War.